Nov. 17, 2023

How to donate a cattle ranch — and what to do with it when you get it

5 years in, W.A. Ranches is transforming agriculture education and research at UCalgary
W.A. Ranches staff on horseback, herding cattle down the road
W.A. Ranches staff on horseback herd cattle down the road. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“I have a big idea for you.”

Dr. Ed Pajor, director of W.A. Ranches at the University of Calgary, clearly recalls that pivotal conversation from the fall of 2017. He was grading exams in his office when Wynne Chisholm called, opening with that cryptic line.

Pajor, PhD, had known Wynne, BA’79, for years, first through their respective work with the Calgary Stampede and then in his role as UCalgary’s Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare, which was created in 2014 with a $5-million gift from Wynne, her husband, Bob Chisholm, and her father, J.C. (Jack) Anderson.

Their next big idea: Gifting the family’s thriving ranch to UCalgary.

“I said, ‘Well, I'm sure we’d like to talk to you about that,” Pajor says, with a chuckle.

The idea had occurred to the Chisholms not long before that call when they were chatting with Pajor and others following an Anderson-Chisholm Chair advisory committee meeting.

“One of the things that came up was what the faculty would need to really move forward,” Wynne says. “If there were no obstacles, what might that look like?”

The answer: its own herd of cattle and a dedicated ranch for teaching, research and outreach. At that time, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) was conducting research using various herds across the province, but the variables between them presented challenges.

It gave Wynne and Bob a lot to think about and discuss with Jack, with whom they owned the sprawling cow-calf operation just north of Cochrane.

Codename: Project Jersey

Most gifts have some precedent, but this wasn’t most gifts. This was 19,000 acres, 1,000 head of cattle, plus buildings and equipment, altogether valued at $44 million.

A committee was struck, with the transfer requiring significant planning. Confidentiality was key, too — the project was nicknamed “Jersey” so as not to prematurely identify the gift.

man and woman standing by a fence on a cattle ranch

J.C. (Jack) Anderson and Wynne Chisholm at the ranch

University of Calgary

UCalgary was attracted to W. A. Ranches due to its reputation for high-quality calves, meticulous cattle and accounting records, and innovative practices. Wynne, Jack and Bob had brought decades of business experience to the ranch, shaping it into a model of efficiency and sustainability, embracing data-driven strategies and setting high environmental and animal-care and welfare standards.

The family’s vision was for W.A. Ranches to become a centre for beef cattle excellence and help UCVM become a global leader in the development of evidence-based educational and community programming to solve complex problems in animal-human-environmental health and public policy.

“There is so much misinformation in the marketplace that having the university in the position to share evidence-based research is critical,” says Wynne. “Whether it’s the issue of methane from cows or finding a sustainable economic model that works for cattle production, or how we use vaccines and drugs in producing food, having scientific facts is so important.”

Looking back over the past 5 years . . .

The ranch officially changed hands Nov. 30, 2018, enabling UCalgary to take a multifaceted approach to agricultural research, education and community engagement.

The spectrum is vast, addressing animal welfare and behaviour, ecological impacts, and agricultural practices. Projects to date have included evaluating animal facial expressions to better manage and reduce pain, using GPS collars to study bull behaviour, and studying the effects of different weaning practices on calves.

The journey hasn’t been entirely smooth — the COVID-19 pandemic hitting a little over a year in hampered plans, but it also allowed the university time to get to know the operation as business continued as usual; those 1,000 cows don’t make allowances for COVID or changing ownership, after all.

As Wynne says, “When it’s calving season, it’s calving season — the cows won’t wait.”

man stands by a fench on a cattle ranch

W.A. Ranches director Ed Pajor

Riley Brandt

The past two years have been livelier, bringing more students on site, introducing first-year students to a working ranch and hosting fourth-year students as part of their rotation.

“They get their hands dirty,” says Pajor. “Checking animals, processing calves and learning what the work is really like. That hands-on experience is invaluable.”

Taking UCVM to this level also helped attract additional investment, including provincial dollars to double intake into the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program — critical to addressing Alberta’s veterinarian shortage — and funding from groups like the Canadian Cattle Foundation, which helped establish a program to attract youth to an industry that’s a key economic driver for the province.

“We’ve hosted high school kids learning about careers in agriculture, as well as industry groups from around the world,” says Pajor. “That engagement helps bridge the urban-rural divide and instil a broader appreciation for agriculture.”

. . . and looking ahead to the future

While UCVM remains Priority 1, other faculties are also benefiting. From the Schulich School of Engineering investigating how to mitigate wildfires through thermal sensors on farm equipment, to the Faculty of Science measuring radon in groundwater and surveilling wildlife, the ranch is a hub of exploration and knowledge generation.

There will be more opportunities when the ranch expands, with classroom and office portables coming early next year and planning underway for a state-of-the-art teaching and outreach facility.

Today, W.A. Ranches represents a synergy of passion, innovation and community, and a living legacy to the Anderson-Chisholm family’s vision and impact.

“People are amazed by their generosity, as I am, every day. I love that the work I’m doing here today is opening doors for the next generation, while maintaining the vision of using a working cow-calf ranch to create opportunities for hands-on training, youth education and research in animal welfare. That gives me energy.”

Ed Pajor

Likewise, the Chisholms are energized by what the future holds. “Our fingerprints are on every corner of that ranch, even five years later,” says Wynne. “It’s inspiring seeing students’ enthusiasm for what they’re learning. We’re excited to see what comes next.”

family photo taken outside

Bob and Wynne with their son, Jamie Chisholm

Nathalie Boisvert

Just as a single spark can ignite a roaring flame, philanthropy is the catalyst that starts something special at the University of Calgary. Explore more stories about the difference we’re making in the community and around the world with the support of donors like you.

Sign up for UToday

Sign up for UToday

Delivered to your inbox — a daily roundup of news and events from across the University of Calgary's 14 faculties and dozens of units

Thank you for your submission.